SMITH, Sir William Sidney (1764-1840), of Burnham, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1802 - 1806

Family and Education

b. 21 June 1764, 2nd s. of Capt. John Smith, gent. usher to Queen Charlotte, of Midgham, Berks., and bro. of John Spencer Smith*. educ. Tonbridge 1772; by Mr Morgan, Bath; Caen 1785-7. m. 11 Oct. 1809, Caroline, da. of James Hearn of Shanakill, Waterford, wid. of Sir George Berriman Rumbold, 2nd Bt., British minister to Hamburg, 1s. 3da. Kntd. Grand Cross of Order of the Sword (Sweden) 16 May 1792; KCB 2 Jan. 1815; GCB 19 July 1838.

Offices Held

Entered RN 1777, lt. 1780, cdr. 1782, half-pay 1782, capt. 1783, col. marines 1804-5; r.-adm. 1805, v.-adm. 1810, adm. 1821, lt.-gen. marines 1830.

Plenip. to the Porte Oct. 1798-Jan. 1799.


Sidney Smith, as he was always known, had heroic ambitions.1 After naval service in the American war, he studied French at Caen and thought himself ‘perhaps the best English-Frenchman that ever lived’. In 1787 he proceeded to reconnoitre Morocco and learnt Arabic; he subsequently sent Pitt a plan for opening up that country.2 In 1788 he wished to be ambassador to China. In 1789, without authority, he obtained employment in the Swedish navy against Russia and was knighted by King Gustavus III. George III invested him with his knighthood and permitted him to use the title in England. In 1793, while visiting his brother at Constantinople, he equipped a ship to join the British force at Toulon and volunteered the destruction of part of the captured French fleet left behind on the British evacuation. On 18 Apr. 1796 he was captured while taking a lugger at Le Havre, treated as a pirate and imprisoned in Paris, whence he escaped in May 1798. He was then sent to the Levant and his success in repelling Buonaparte at Acre in May 1799 made him the most popular hero in England after Nelson. He received the thanks of Parliament, 26 Sept., and of the City, and by a bill which passed the House on 25 Feb. 1801, a pension of £1,000 a year backdated to 1799. But he did not get the red ribband, as expected, having spoilt the effect by his unauthorized negotiation of the treaty of El Arish, 24 Jan. 1800, which released the French prisoners of war. His conduct was much criticized in the House, 18 Nov. 1800, 27 Mar. 1801. He arrived home from Egypt in November 1801. His vanity allowed him to be the reputed lover of the Princess of Wales.3

In 1802 Smith was not brought into Parliament for Old Sarum on Lord Camelford’s interest, as anticipated, but was invited to contest Rochester at the instigation of his Whig friend Denis O’Bryen, who acted as his agent there. After a successful canvass he posed as an independent supporter of Addington’s administration. He had not been their choice for the Admiralty interest at Rochester; nor was his brother John their choice at Dover, where as ‘plain Kentish gentlemen’ they claimed an interest, but he assured Addington that he himself had declined to offer at Dover so as not to embarrass the ministry and that his brother’s return was a late expedient to keep out the opposition. He was also proposed, without his consent, at Bristol.4 He headed the poll at Rochester. Addington’s doubts about Smith must have been exacerbated by his maiden speech, 2 Dec. 1802, in which he deplored the discharge of naval dockyarders and reduction of the navy by St. Vincent. He warned that a French invasion would come via Holland. On 17 Dec. he advocated the inclusion of the Ordnance in the commission of naval inquiry. After this he found himself on active service, without being promoted. He complained to Addington and his brother of this and by January 1804 described himself to William Windham as disengaged from the ministry, but prevented from attending the House. Windham’s ally Lord Grenville, whose wife was Smith’s first cousin, tried to recruit him on Pitt’s return to power and Pitt was urged by the Duke of Cumberland to humour Smith by means of a baronetcy, which Addington had refused him. He was listed ‘Pitt’ in September 1804, and in 1805 wrote to him from Bath prepared to support him in the House or ‘in any way that he found practicable’ in the war effort. He voted against the censure on Melville, 8 Apr. 1805. On 11 July he broke down in the House while seconding Windham’s motion deploring French treatment of Capt. Wright, Smith’s fellow prisoner in Paris, who was still there. That month he was listed ‘doubtful Pitt’. The doubt is odd, as he was subsequently engaged in secret operations off Boulogne, though not, as he would have wished, in command of them.5

Smith was posted to Naples in January 1806 and unable to show his support for his cousin-in-law Lord Grenville in office. Grenville was unable to prevent his being ‘thrown away’. Smith proposed that he should vacate his seat in favour of his agent O’Bryen, but the Treasury blocked it. He was still absent at the dissolution and again nominated at Rochester, with Grenville’s blessing; but this arrangement was not appreciated locally, and after a bitter contest in which Smith was treated with obloquy, he was defeated. O’Bryen failed to secure his return on petition. This ended his parliamentary career.6

A brave, resourceful and well-informed officer, Smith alienated his superiors by his vainglorious insubordination. In 1809 he was recalled from Rio after a bitter quarrel with Lord Strangford. His pension had not covered his expenditure in the public service and proved inadequate for his private expenses, which eventually swallowed up his small estate in Norfolk. (In 1805 he was temporarily in the King’s Bench prison for debt.) He remained hungry for recognition. He wished Lord Grenville to make him consul-general to the Barbary states in 1806.7 In 1810 he applied to Spencer Perceval to be made governor of Malta and, failing that, KB or an Irish peer, and, on being disappointed, for an English peerage. In 1811 he sought a generalship of marines.8 He repeated his application for an English peerage to Lord Liverpool in 1814, following it up with a memorial to the Prince Regent.9 He was driven to France by poverty in 1815 and in 1818 begged government, which had awarded him £7,375 in 1811, to compensate him further for his losses in the public service. His pension was doubled. Charles Williams Wynn thought he would have been a better ministerial candidate for Westminster than Sir Murray Maxwell in 1818. He was still a petitioner for public employment in 1828 and 1832. William Wilberforce thought Smith had been ‘scandalously used’ in not being given a peerage or a ribband, but John Wilson Croker described him as ‘a mere vaporizer’.10 He died at Paris, president of a fictitious order of knights templars, 26 May 1840.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: P. A. Symonds


  • 1. Mems. of Adm. Sir Sidney Smith; Life of Sir Sidney Smith (1806); J. Barrow, Life and Corresp. of Sir Sidney Smith (1848); DNB; Naval Chron. iv. 445; Marshall, Naval Biog. i. 291.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/179, ff. 127, 129, 135; Add. 37852, f. 32; 38223, f. 233.
  • 3. Add. 34449, f. 109; Auckland Jnl. iii. 152; Morning Chron. 22 Apr. 1796; Malmesbury Diaries, iii. 263, 324, 443; Colchester, i. 153, 188; Windham Diary, 412; NLS mss 11054, f. 167; Geo. IV Letters, i. 509.
  • 4. The Times, 28 Dec. 1801, 17 May, 7 July; Sidmouth mss, Smith to Addington, 29 May, 9 July 1802.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Smith to J. H. and H. Addington, 8 July, 19 Aug. 1803; Add. 37852, f. 134; PRO 30/70/4/232; Dacres Adams mss 6/11; Castlereagh Corresp. v. 91, 95, 99, 100, 113, 115, 119, 126, 130.
  • 6. Grey mss, Grenville to Grey, 6 Feb. 1806; see ROCHESTER.
  • 7. Add. 37852, ff. 32, 125; 45042, f. 114; Windham Pprs. i. 226; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1806), 502; A. M. W. Stirling, Private Pprs. of Sir W. Hotham, 305; HMC Fortescue, viii. 93.
  • 8. Add. 38244, ff. 151, 157, 175; 45045, f. 53.
  • 9. Add. 38258, f. 147; PRO 30/9/14, Smith’s memorial.
  • 10. Add. 38271, ff. 125-34; NLW, Coedymaen mss 8, f. 559; Life of Wilberforce (1838), v. 339; Croker Pprs., ed. Jennings, i. 348.